At this point, it’s only a matter of time before the sports industry finally tires of its old formulas (sports as fable, sports as multimedia happening, sports as religion) and comes up with a way to make its product edible. The industry’s already being served on a plate: Modern sports arenas are basically food courts with ulterior motives. And have you checked out an NFL pregame lately? That talking head may look as if he’s broadcasting from a studio, but it’s really the ESPN Zone, which, in essence, is a restaurant built within a framework of big screens.
The idea of the sports-themed restaurant has been with us for a while and—if you disregard Disney-backed enterprises as species unto themselves—there are really two basic archetypes: the TV-addled bar that fancies itself as something more, and the more regal, male-directed nostalgia restaurant—the kind that features images of iconic sports figures on its walls and classic American entrees alongside onion rings the size of 45s. Restaurateurs have been riffing on both concepts for years, mixing innovation and taste as they see fit. Bethesda’s Willie & Reed’s offers a modern rendition of the former model, downtown’s Sporting News Grille a straight homage to the latter.
Willie & Reed’s, which, like the Sporting News, opened in the late summer, is founded on the premise that big-game hype is illusory and thus eminently duplicable, even during lunch hour and on nights when there’s nothing to watch. The dining room recasts a flying saucer’s cockpit as the bachelor pad of every stat-tracking couch potato’s dreams. It’s a relatively small, coolly metallic space outfitted with a battery of televisions (there’s even one over the urinal) that are always running hot. On one post-playoff, pre-World Series evening, my girlfriend is framed by a trio of screens: one broadcasting a meaningless NBA match-up, another a narrated loop of great NHL brawls, the third what looks to be an infomercial for steroids. Baseball schmaseball.
The kitchen’s effort to compete with all the visual stimulation begins ambitiously, with the butter. It’s flavored with honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon—an apt combination for ice cream, if not for something to spread over bread. With the appetizers, the kitchen wisely returns to earth. A pool of tangy marinara and a dusting of peppered Parmesan partially redeem a plate of chewy calamari. The “hotter than hell” buffalo wings are not falsely advertised. And the house’s signature dip, a bubbling blend of lump meat, dairy, and spices, approaches the sublimity of crab imperial; ignore the butter and save your bread for wiping clean the bowl.
Restaurants like Willie & Reed’s are culinary bar-setters whether foodies like it or not; their clientele demands food pitched to its liking, and any entree falling outside that taste spectrum is liable to be laughed away in favor of extra appetizers. Our waitress informs us that W&R’s chef trained at Georgia Brown’s, so it’s no surprise that the restaurant takes a down-home approach in catering to its uniquely finicky audience. From the create-your-own chopped salads to the Carolina shrimp over creamy grits, the results are surprisingly good. The secret to the meatloaf is grilling: The bit of char-crust creates a texture and seal so that the meat within can retain a touch of juice, something both of the burgers I try—one beef, the other turkey—sorely lack. Still, after three meals, we finally give up looking for kinks in the concept and settle into a leather-lined booth to enjoy what we’ve got—full stomachs, hockey fights, and our own remote.
The Sporting News Grille, whose owners run similar old-school joints in Manhattan and Long Island, spins the football ‘n’ food motif for downtown’s cigar-chomping power set. You’ve undoubtedly seen this scene before, whether at the Capital Grille, which is built out of similar mahogany-stained lumber, or in your dreams of sharing postgame beers and prime rib with Mickey Mantle. The dining room’s mural of a sun-dappled baseball diamond says it all: The fantasy here has to do with time travel, and if the creamed corn doesn’t take you back, it’s hoped that the framed image of Joe Namath will.
Unfortunately, the sense of wistfulness is fleeting. Everything from the what’ll-it-be-fellas service to the butcher-paper table covers suggests a steakhouse-quality experience, but the food can’t sustain it. The double-cut pork chop is certainly a manly thing; our waiter needs both hands to bring it out, and there’s enough meat on the plate to make sandwiches for a Little League team. The problem is that the meat would be better off slathered in sauce and stuck between bread—it’s so dry that the maple-pecan gravy slides right off. The New York strip is better prepared, but at $25.95, you would expect the meat to bear the faint funk of dry-aging. It doesn’t.
In the spirit of more modern American grills, the kitchen strays beyond national borders. In fact, if you order just the seared ahi tuna appetizer, you may leave with plans for a return visit. But the high points are aberrations. The cobb salad “royale” is a fine example of why one shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken: goat cheese tastes like fruit next to grilled steak, and prosciutto sitting in for bacon is simply squishy ham. Worst of all, if you get bored with your meal and decide you want to check up on the game, you’ll have to walk to the bar to get the score. The dining room may be full of sports fans, but there are no TVs.
Willie & Reed’s, 4901-A Fairmont Ave., Bethesda, (301) 951-1100.
The Sporting News Grille, 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 628-6999.
Sources as diverse as the New York Times and “Jim in Arlington” have been raving about the bread at Cosi Sandwich Bar. And for good reason: It’s a crisp cross between pizza crust and focaccia, and if you’ve got the patience to brave out-the-door lunch lines, you’ll find that the stuff’s even better with filling. Choosing that filling is another matter. Disoriented by the number of choices and the chaotic ordering procedure, a British woman in front of me turns and asks, completely serious, “What do I do?” I tell her that pesto grilled chicken might go nice with some grilled vegetables and a smear of sun-dried tomato spread. As it turns out, I’m right.
Cosi Sandwich Bar, 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, (202) 638-7101.
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